This winter term I’m teaching historical theory to undergraduate students, a required course that never fails to unnerve them, and not just because reading theory challenges seemingly settled world views. This week, they are unsettled because we are trying to wrap our heads around facts, evidence, the author, and today we take up the nineteenth-century origins of empirical knowledge.
We will read Kant, Hegel, and Ranke but through Bonnie Smith’s devastating critique of men and historical practice, The Gender of History (Harvard UP, 2000) http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674002043&content=reviews. This book could not be more pertinent for the troubled times of January 2017 when facts are treated with contempt. The cruel irony of this for historians cannot be more dangerous.
One argument she makes is that history and historical practice was gendered masculine in the nineteenth century by men who worked for, or at least supported, the nationalist states by providing the historical foundations for a mythic, heroic past to justify the creation of imperialist nations–Britain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Russia. Ranke and his many students, trained in a seminar style that excluded women and everyone else deemed inferior, argued for an ideal, universal history composed of impartially, meticulously gathered evidence about the deeds of that was dubbed factual. Anything that was not political was considered inferior–the lives of women, non-Europeans, non-Christians, and anything that described the ordinary, everyday, and the “irrational.” Facts were masculine, and the collection and publication of facts was crucial to the formation of a masculine professoriate that put facts on a pedestal.
This would all be just a classroom exercise to train young historians in the ethics of our work. But Donald Trump’s disdain for facts threatens to throw all this in a compost heap.
Facts, tricky as they are for historians to define, have been batted around in the past few decades by political conservatives who seek to discard the inconvenient ones about race, gender, and class as they promote a past that harks back to the 19th century desire for a heroic past. But the textbook wars over the Alamo, slavery, the Founding Fathers, women’s suffrage all pale now in comparison to an incoming President who treats facts with disdain.
In Trump’s elitist, privileged worldview, facts are not the things that define manhood. No, facts are the things that define the chumps, the little people, the powerless who call up facts to mess up the heroic manly past of “high” political history. For Trump, power gives him the privilege to ignore what he knows to be factually correct–from his golf game to whether Walt Disney designed the kids’ rooms at Mar-a-Lago https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/16/us/politics/donald-trump-butler-mar-a-lago.html?_r=0. Rich white elitist men don’t need facts. Facts are treated with same smug ease that women are, with contempt.
With Trump’s treatment of women, I turn now to a recent letter from Professor Liz Herbert McAvoy, the president of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarshiphttp://smfsweb.org, who makes two important points. First, the vital importance of feminist work now, when more than ever we need to declare the facts of the experiences of all people, all expressions of genders and sexualities, across time. And second, that this battle is just one of many feminists face and that the only way to do our work is to keep moving together.
Here’s her letter (very lightly abridged);
The cusp of the new year also seems a very good time to remind ourselves of the stated mission of SMFS–-to promote interdisciplinary exchange across the world in terms of gender, women’s and feminist studies, an exchange that appears to have become more pressing than ever during the course of this past year. Indeed, in 2016 the SMFS Advisory Board found it necessary to reiterate several times their commitment to valuing diversity, difference and inclusivity, and to opposing most actively any form of discrimination based on gender, gender identity, race, religion, disability or sexual orientation. This reaffirmation of commitment has been reflected in a number of new initiatives already being rolled out by the SMFS Advisory Board.
First came the ‘Fem-fog’ debacle which, allied to the sobering results of the Ad Board’s 2015 survey on the extent of harassment (sexual and otherwise) on our campuses, rendered imperative a series of initiatives aimed at countering this ongoing epidemic of intimidating practices and behaviours. Discussions on this issue were held at roundtables at the Kalamazoo and Leeds international congresses, with members of the Advisory Board contributing to both, and a series of strategies and initiatives drawn up in their wake.
Firstly, a designated webpage on the SMFS website has been launched where anti-harassment policies, strategies and advice can be collated, including important news reports and legal precedents, providing an initial go-to resource for those feeling the force of academic harassment or bullying. Secondly, Jennifer Edwards and Linda Mitchell have begun work on a Special Issue of Medieval Feminist Forum on the topic of harassment, both in the Middle Ages and contemporary times, creating a teleological dialogue to assist our understanding of the insidious workings of harassment, abuse and discrimination. One of the volume’s contributors, Dr Ann Olivarius, brings to bear upon the volume her wide experience as an international civil rights lawyer specialising in corporate and academic sexual harassment and abuse. The Special Edition will be available via free access on the MFF website later this year and will be added to our growing list of resources.
In the longer term, the Advisory Board has established a new Trans* Travel Fund to assist those of our colleagues who identify as trans* to travel and attend conferences within a climate where certain forms of transport may well present more risks due to the scrutiny of gender presentation these colleagues may encounter. This fund was kicked off by a number of generous membership donations and has since been augmented by the sales of new merchandise (‘swag’), such as our ‘#Embrace the Femfog’ and ‘We are SMFS’ buttons; our wrist-band memory sticks and tote bags, all on sale at Kalamazoo and Leeds in 2016. The range of swag on sale is due to expand this Spring! Jes Boon has just opened the application process for 2017 Trans* Travel Fund assistance (please see the website for more information). The success of this and our other initiatives, however, is obviously dependent upon further donation, so do please consider contributing something, however small, in 2017!
Our other more longstanding initiatives generated their own success stories in 2016. Jamie Gunderson won our 2016 Graduate Student Essay Prize, later published in MFF. The winner of the 2016 First Book Prize was Jennifer Thibodeux, for her The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300 http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15447.html. Jenny Bledsoe was the recipient of the Foremothers’ Fellowship Prize, allowing her to travel to the UK for essential manuscript research. This latter prize was established, and continues to be facilitated by a generous donation of royalties from The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith M. Bennett and Ruth Mazo Karras, and was recently augmented by an equally generous donation from the BABEL working group. Enormous thanks are due to both sets of donors for enabling the continuation of this important initiative. Many congratulations are also due to all three competition winners. The processes to award the 2017 prizes are now well underway, with announcements scheduled for this coming Spring.
Another important initiative has been to forge much closer links with the UK-based Gender and Medieval Studies (GMS) group, with whom SMFS has been co-organizing roundtables at the Leeds IMC for many years now. A recent rebuilding of the GMS website was supported by SMFS and plans are now developing to organize a jointly-sponsored conference in 2018: more details on this will follow in the new year. Membership of SMFS and GMS has soared in recent months, between them now able to be measured in thousands, rather than hundreds! We certainly hope to see this increase sustained during the forthcoming year and it is, of course, concerted proof of the fact that we remain stronger, more confident and more cooperative in community.